Paul Evans’s blog piece [now removed] on the pros and cons of local councils in effect challenging the role of local newspapers with their own publications highlights many of the issues. There’s one that I’d add to the list, and it is about holding councils to account.
It’s understandable that many councils are sufficiently frustrated by the paucity of coverage of their activities in the local media and/or the low penetration rate of that media that they are looking to put out more and more information via official publications which includes, in some cases, in effect becoming a rival publisher to their local newspapers.
However, whilst in some cases this may be a good way of getting out news about council services, it also skews the overall balance of coverage of the council in a very positive direction. Yet the big difficulty with local democratic accountability in many councils is that no-one in the media is really covering what the council gets up in any meaningful way. It may be that the local newspapers report very little of the council, or it may be that most of what they report is of the “he said, she said” variety which never ends up exposing very much other than those in power think they are doing a good job and those in opposition think they’re not. Either way though, what is done at the council largely escapes public scrutiny.
I used to live in Haringey, and the performance of the local newspapers through both the Victoria Climbie and Baby P tragedies highlights this all too clearly. Haringey’s social services has been deeply troubled for many years, and on both occasions a high profile tragedy brought in the national media which then uncovered a whole host of stories that had previously gone unreported. But it’s only been when the national media comes in that this has happened. The local media has – with, to its credit, a handful of exceptions in the Broadway Ham & High – failed to unearth anything much. The reports of social services have largely been of the “he said, she said” variety – matching criticisms from opposition politicians with defences of the council from Labour (the governing party) and council people. The main paid for title – the Journal series – even decided not to make the trial over the death of Baby P the front page story on its Hornsey edition.
I have some sympathy with the individual journalists who haven’t done any real holding to account of Haringey social services, but fundamentally the problem is that they haven’t held Haringey Council to account in a way that, for all its flaws, the national media does for government departments.
So in such situations is more publicity from the council really a good move? It’s all too easy to see how that can make the problems arising from the lack of proper accountability even worse. It may perhaps be a case of no news of the council being better than adulatory news of the council.